When the NBN was first floated one of the primary goals was to “level the playing field”. Telecommunications usually favours the large player due to the amount of capital required for infrastructure. For 20 years Telstra called pretty much all the shots in the Australian telco industry and played a game of cat and mouse with it’s arch-nemesis the ACCC. Telstra was famous for favouring its own retail division over any of its wholesale customers for example. While NBN (along with the structural separation of Telstra) has done much to level the playing field, there have been a number of smaller, apparently less significant, decisions that seem to be going in the opposite direction.
Phil Britt of Aussie Broadband has publically criticised a proposed extension of the time before NBN will force telcos to switch off their old “special services”. Firstly I would like to point out I fully support Phil’s position, but I would like to add some meat onto the bones. Yet again we see the big telcos manipulating NBN to their own ends at the expense of Australia.
So why should you care? If your NBN is delivered over FTTN (Fibre-to-the-node) technology, which is the case for the vast majority of Australians, then a delay here will mean that you will have slower, less reliable internet for longer.
One of the downsides of FTTN is that it uses the same copper that is also used for phone lines, ADSL and also these “special services” – predominantly a phone technology called ISDN used by many businesses. Unfortunately when you run two copper cables next to each other, there is a tendency for the signal to jump from one cable to another – this is called “crosstalk”. The higher the frequency of the signal, the more that this is a problem and FTTN uses very high frequency signals. This crosstalk causes interference.
During the migration period when people are both using the old technology and the new FTTN technology (called in NBN parlance “co-existence”), to reduce this interference NBN have reduced both the frequency range and the signal power of the FTTN nodes. Because of this people have reduced speed and a less reliable internet connection.
Under the original FTTP rollout, there was an 18 month migration period when all the regular services (phone and ADSL) were forcibly migrated across to the NBN. There was actually no technical reason for this (copper and fibre run just fine side-by-side), it was purely a political and economic one. At the time the remaining copper based “special services” were the can that was kicked down the road to be dealt with later. However under the FTTN technology a decision to delay has real consequences.
Under FTTN the same 18 month migration period exists for phone and ADSL. We were all looking forward to the co-existence period ending after 18 months and people’s connections being turned up to full power, however because of these special services NBN still hasn’t turn off the “co-existence” mode at the node and is now talking about delaying it again.
So why would the big telcos be requesting a delay on this? As usual it is all about money. Firstly a telco typically earns more money on the old legacy services than the newer NBN ones. Secondly a telco has to engage with their customer and help manage the process for migration, this of course costs money. Thirdly whenever there is a network change, it typically is a time when a customer will re-evaluate its choice of supplier.
Indeed the biggest barrier to competition in the telco space is sheer customer inertia – if a service is basically working most customers are, quite reasonably, nervous to make any changes. This is unfortunately due to their experiences with the major telcos who regularly stuff things up during migrations.
The large telcos would very much like their customers just to do nothing and keep buying from them. However they are doing this at the expense of the quality of the internet for the rest of us. They have had plenty of time (years) to plan and execute this, if they are still not ready, then clearly they don’t want to be ready and are using this as yet another way of keeping the more nimble challenger telcos off their turf.